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Leading Your Campus Disaster Efforts

Creating an effective response plan for before and after they occur
University Business, Feb 2010

Natural and man-made disasters cause immediate harm and can also have an impact for months or years afterward. This article offers basic recommendations for pre- and post-disaster leadership, planning, preparation, and action to mitigate a disaster's effect, expedite your institution's recovery, and maximize the financial recovery process. Start with the premise that disasters do occur and pose serious challenges and problems for institutional leadership.

Historically, disaster planning, response, and recovery responsibilities were relegated to buildings and grounds and public safety departments. Campus leaders now recognize that disasters pose institution-wide challenges. Presidents and chief financial officers (CFOs) are uniquely positioned to provide the leadership, management, and support needed for coping with disasters. If your institution lacks a disaster plan, it is recommended that you take a leadership role to ensure that a current, effective disaster plan is created, so your institution is prepared to respond to disasters before they occur.

Exercise proactive leadership. Plan for potential hazards, employ the procedures and processes necessary to prepare your institution to act and to prevent or mitigate disaster damage where feasible.

Proactive leadership engages institutional stakeholders in the preparedness process and ensures that disaster planning and preparations are perceived as vital. While most leaders cannot dedicate time to doing the actual task of planning, they can initiate, lead, delegate, and direct the process.

Campus leaders now recognize that disasters pose institution-wide challenges.

Possible first steps are:

  • Organize an ad hoc discussion group of stakeholders (faculty, staff, students, trustees, community representatives) to discuss disaster planning. They should develop lists of hazards, and formulate strategies for implementing the disaster preparedness and management effort.
  • Establish a working group to act upon these discussions and strategies. Select a chairperson who has, or can acquire, a basic knowledge of disaster planning.
  • Consider using outside resources to assist the working group. (Note: FEMA and educational organizations are now providing information, publications, and resources for higher education. For example, "FEMA 443, Building a Disaster Resistant University," is available at
  • Develop partnerships with government, businesses, and organizations to be able to respond to and mitigate emergency situations. (The contractor constructing your new buildings probably has portable generators and more. Ask them to commit resources in the event of a disaster.)
  • Formulate a written plan and post it on the campus website. Allow the campus and local communities to comment and critique the plan. (Disaster planning and management has positive potential for town-gown relationships. FEMA has a useful planning guide available on their website at
  • Once agreement on the plan is reached, activate and practice the plan to test and refine it—and to continually communicate it.

Traditionally, preparation has focused on identifying emergency shelters, establishing stocks of emergency supplies, etc. Your disaster preparations should include:

  • Developing emergency communication and contact systems with off-site backups (phones and the internet may not be available);
  • Establishing "disaster teams" of essential personnel;
  • Selecting a director of emergency management;
  • Creating emergency payroll, procurement, purchasing systems, and standby contracts;
  • Developing and communicating closure and evacuation policies;
  • Designating/equipping an emergency operations center.

Disaster damages can often be prevented by pre-disaster hazard mitigation from the simple act of installing hurricane clips on roofs to complex solutions involving dry flood-proofing and installing submarine doors for high-risk buildings. Building construction, repairs, or renovation projects offer excellent opportunities for hazard mitigation. Engineering/maintenance personnel, architectural/engineering firms, contractors, consultants, FEMA, state and local emergency officials are valuable resources for mitigation ideas.

Should a disaster occur on your campus, activate your plan and people. Based on the disaster's magnitude, all normal institutional functions may cease for a period of time. Leadership will provide oversight for the response and prioritize the necessary recovery steps. The emergency director and operations center will manage the day-to-day response operations. As you respond, keep these basic priorities in mind:

First: provide for human health and safety;

Second: protect property to mitigate the damages.

Disaster recovery begins immediately and overlaps the disaster response phase. Recovery requires the identification and documentation of damages and losses, the quantification and cost of repairs, and the preparation of submissions to insurance carriers and/or FEMA. If the disaster is federally declared, colleges and universities are normally eligible applicants under FEMA's Public Assistance Program, which provides a minimum of a 75 percent federal share, 10 percent state share, and 15 percent applicant's (your institution's) share for reimbursement of eligible losses. Additional hazard mitigation dollars are also available.

Ensure that your damages are properly identified and documented (photographs, if possible). Public insurance adjusters, who represent clients to their insurance companies, are very useful in professionally documenting and presenting your insurance claims. For FEMA's Public Assistance Program, disaster recovery consultants can assist in a similar manner to help your institution maximize its recovery reimbursement and benefits.

Similar to the need for strategies to prepare and respond to disasters, strategies for recovery are also required. While disasters are tragic events, they can also provide opportunities to rebuild our institutions to be better and stronger. When you lead, plan, prepare, prevent, respond, and recover intelligently and strategically, your institution benefits in the long term.

Dan S. Ramsey is senior consultant and project manager at Adjusters International Inc.

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